An exhaustive survey of the Presidents of the United States and everything they did wrong while in office.

Nov 12, 2019

Everything Wrong with the Lincoln Administration

Lincoln’s navigation of the secession crisis and ensuing Civil War can legitimately be described as unprepared at best, and at moments susceptible to severe strategic missteps. 

Everything Wrong with the Lincoln Administration
Editor’s Note

“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.

Abraham Lincoln presents a unique challenge for historical assessment due to the unparalleled political upheaval of the Civil War. The subsequent elevation of Lincoln himself into the American political mythos adds further complexity, as scholars of his presidency must now contend not only with an intricate subject matter but also with Lincoln’s popular veneration in historical memory. The resulting literature encompasses a vast expanse of scholarly biographies, adoring panegyrics, and critical polemics, as well as overtly political works on both the left and right that attempt to appropriate Lincoln’s legacy for their own contemporary causes.

It is not my purpose in this essay tease out a “true” understanding of Lincoln from his many contesting claimants in the present. Nor do I seek to situate the unique events of his presidency against his peers, save to note that most attempts at presidential ranking fail to capture the uncertainties and difficulties of Lincoln’s term while assigning it a preeminent rank from the hindsight of its outcomes.[1] While comprising a much smaller literature of their own, Lincoln’s critics – including many of the libertarian variety – risk venturing into unwarranted demonization from the opposite direction.[2] Indeed, grievances with Lincoln are usually prompted by varying degrees of distaste for both real and imagined but also distant political legacies of his administration – the growth of the federal government, the consolidation of executive power, specific disliked policies such as the income tax and tariffs, and constitutional objections involving executive power and federalism.[3] The task here is to examine the effects of Lincoln’s term in office, not its modern celebrants or detractors.

The first step in critically assessing Lincoln’s presidency is to appropriately credit and contextualize his most famous accomplishment – the abolition of slavery. In barely four years’ time, Lincoln – through personal though not always planned initiative – successfully uprooted the slave system from its previous position of deep political entrenchment. His actions directly freed almost 4 million human beings from a life of coerced labor, brutal physical violence, and a complete deprivation of their individual liberty. Lincoln personally orchestrated the two most significant political steps of attaining this outcome: the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, implemented by order as a war measure against the secessionist Confederacy, and the passage of the 13th Amendment a little over two years later. Although ratified after his assassination, Lincoln publicly campaigned for the amendment and considered its adoption a necessary safeguard of the earlier proclamation’s effects in the event of a legal challenge to its administrative enactment.

Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation’s announcement, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, reportedly quipped that Lincoln had freed the slaves in precisely the places where he had no effective means of doing so. We should resist this deprecation of the Proclamation’s consequences however, as the battle lines of the war changed daily and the order imbued the Union’s military objectives with an overt anti-slavery motive that it had previously denied itself. The effects of that shift fell short of an abolitionist transformation of the war cause, but they were far from an inconsequential act as their detractors in 1863 maintained.

Abolitionism was a preeminent cause of classical liberal philosophy in the nineteenth century, and those attached to it immediately recognized the 1863 order’s implications. “Lincoln’s Proclamation is a pregnant document,” observed the great free trader and liberal statesman Richard Cobden when news of its issuance first arrived across the Atlantic. “History has few more important incidents than that which mark the overthrow of human slavery in the new world.”[4] The occasion marked a significant turn in Cobden’s assessment of the war from afar. A little over a year prior he offered a trenchant assessment of the Union’s political position to Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, identifying the political obstacles abroad presented by its reluctance to move more aggressively against slavery:

“In your case we observe a mighty quarrel: on one side protectionists, on the other slave-owners. The protectionists say they do not seek to put down slavery. The slave-owners say they want Free Trade. Need you wonder at the confusion in John Bull’s poor head?”[5]

Closer to home the Proclamation carried tangible implications on the battlefield, at least among those most directly affected by its objective. Abolitionist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson entered into the Union army with the intention of leading the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black unit composed of escaped slaves. Higginson’s diary recorded the occasion of its reading before his troops, then stationed on a Union-controlled barrier island along the state’s coast: “I proposed to them to hold up their hands and pledge themselves to be faithful to those still in bondage.”[6] For the former slaves themselves at least, the Union cause was now a war for emancipation.

Lincoln’s guarded personality have given rise to numerous investigations of his motive and agency in bringing about these events, some of them venturing into deeply speculative territory. Historians, for the most part, have moved beyond the once-fashionable contrarian take of Richard Hofstadter, who downplayed the position of emancipation within Lincoln’s political interests, especially prior to his election.[7] More recent biographical works have swung sharply in the other direction, either suggesting Lincoln underwent a rapid evolutionary growth toward abolitionism while in office or attempting to esoterically discern a coded radicalism in his intentions from the start.[8] This latter approach carries a celebratory implications that, in turn, credit Lincoln for a deft execution that orchestrated a planned succession of political blows against slavery.

Both miss the mark, albeit in different ways. Lincoln’s position on slavery merged a genuine moral revulsion at the institution with the practical moderation of a northern Whig. From his earliest forays into politics, Lincoln exhibited an affinity for the classical “Whig formula” of Henry Clay that sought to wean the country from slavery by incremental means. As far as Lincoln’s strategy was concerned, this meant adopting a platform of enticing gradual emancipation accompanied by compensation to the slaveowners, and closely pairing the result with the significantly less practical but persistent policy of colonizing the freed slaves abroad in locales such as Liberia or the West Indies.

The features of the Whig formula remained a stable theme of Lincoln’s beliefs across most of his political career and presidency. As late as February 1865 he was still holding forth an offer of compensation as an enticement for the Confederates to lay down their arms, and numerous records from the final months of his life suggest an intention of pursuing colonization in earnest after the cessation of hostilities.[9] From this moderate yet certain antislavery position Lincoln was also able to move directly against slavery when the political circumstances of the moment permitted it. The course of the war created many such opportunities, almost always unplanned, but Lincoln was able to act advantageously upon them.

Recognition of this skill, sometimes entrepreneurial though also often rooted in luck, helps to explain how Lincoln navigated the slavery issue across his presidency while also subordinating it to the political constraints of the moment, foremost among them the political preservation of the Union. In fact, he assumed office ready to make a stunning concession to the secessionists, having endorsed and likely helped to orchestrate the congressional adoption of the last-ditch Corwin Amendment – a provision that constitutionally affirmed the legality of slavery and devolved all jurisdiction over it to the individual states.[10] The measure, had it been ratified, would have likely precluded future federal restrictions upon slavery where it existed including a future Emancipation Proclamation, though this was also likely less of an obstacle for the gradualist weaning strategy of Lincoln’s Whig antecedents than for immediate abolitionism sought by his party’s vocal antislavery wing.

Yet opportunities to undermine slavery also emerged throughout the war, and Lincoln generally acted upon them when the circumstances permitted. One of the first occasions arose unexpectedly in late May 1861 when a group of slaves in Virginia seized upon the emerging military conflict to seek refuge in the Union-held Fort Monroe. With their masters demanding the return of their human property, the fort’s commander Gen. Benjamin F. Butler offered an innovative legal solution. Since the slaves were still legally property, and owing to the Confederacy’s use of slave labor in the construction of its own military defenses, they were subject to seizure by the army as contrabands of war. By implication, any slave that could make it to the Union lines could be “seized” as similar contraband and thereby freed.

The contrabands strategy presented a subtler means of moving against slavery than direct military seizure and emancipation. In fact, Lincoln reversed two early attempts to effect military emancipation by Gens. John C. Fremont and David Hunter, deeming each to have acted beyond the scope of the army’s authority and his own orders. But the contrabands strategy eventually opened the door to two successive Confiscation Acts with the aim of incorporating the process into law. Lincoln reluctantly signed the first, a limited statutory specification of the policy, in late 1861. He placed a more direct imprint upon the second, adopted in July of 1862, by offering both legal analysis to ensure its survival under court scrutiny and by incorporating the Whig formula into the doctrine, sending agents to Capitol Hill to secure a colonization provision in the process. The Second Confiscation Act, in turn, provided the legal instrument through which Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862. In doing so, he created the mechanism for the more famous successor order of January 1863. Ever the perceptive legal mind, Lincoln had effectively enlisted the unfolding circumstances of the war and the opportunity of accompanying legislation to move incrementally against slavery.

This final military measure, though bold, continued to carry the imprints of Lincoln’s weaning strategy. Only an hour before signing the final proclamation, Lincoln finalized a contract to begin a colonization venture in Haiti. Over the next several months Lincoln personally pressed in earnest for state-initiated gradual emancipation in the border state of Missouri and the breakaway Unionist counties that would soon become West Virginia, partially securing the latter as a compromise for its admission to statehood. When the abolition-minded wing of the Republican Party moved in 1864 to secure a constitutional amendment, Lincoln similarly endorsed the measure in his annual address to Congress and lent his energies to securing the necessary votes in the House of Representatives. Through a succession of intentional decisions, dictated by the unfolding circumstances of the war and in Congress, Lincoln was able to secure nearly complete abolition over the course of his presidency.

This outcome was no small accomplishment, but neither was it the carefully orchestrated and planned execution that some modern enthusiasts credit to him. Lincoln himself would have been the first to dispute such a notion. When Sojourner Truth thanked Lincoln for being the first president to act in the interest of the slaves, he answered quite simply that he was the “only one who ever had such opportunity.” “Had our friends in the South behaved themselves, I could have done nothing whatever.”[11]

While Lincoln’s legacy today owes much to the successful destruction of slavery, his presidency should not be held above reproach on account of its most significant accomplishment. Without denying that achievement, we may also subject other aspects of his legacy to measured scrutiny. Lincoln’s faults generally fall into three thematic areas.

First, and apart from its ultimate and hard-fought military victory, Lincoln’s navigation of the secession crisis and ensuing Civil War can legitimately be described as unprepared at best, and at moments susceptible to severe strategic missteps. Lincoln usually receives credit for his political acumen during the war on account of the hindsight of its outcomes, yet he entered office with an almost naïve underappraisal of the Deep South secessionists’ resolve to separate themselves from the Union.

Perceiving secessionism as a product of a loud but vocal minority that could be tamed with appeals to a sensible remainder, Lincoln largely misjudged the severity of the secessionist threat during the crucial month between his inauguration and the Confederate decision to open fire on Fort Sumter. Although he announced his resolve to preserve the union in his inaugural address, Lincoln struggled to find a footing over the next month and essentially stumbled his way into an armed conflict that quickly outgrew his expectations or ability to contain the hostilities. The rapid degradation of the secession crisis evolved at least in part due to the White House’s unprepared reaction to the political crisis. In the month before Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s surrogates sent confusing and sometimes conflicting signals to the secessionists, as well as to the politically crucial block of conditional unionists in the slaveholding border states of the upper south. The resulting flurry of confusion likely exacerbated the secession crisis.

Initially Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward became something of an informal line of communication with the secessionists, first through the intermediary of outgoing California Senator William M. Gwin and then through southern-born Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, both of whom maintained personal connections to leading Confederate officials.[12] Lincoln further tested the diplomatic waters by informally dispatching two known surrogates, Ward Hill Lamon and Stephen A. Hurlbut, to Charleston to assess the situation surrounding the fort with its commander and in discussions with South Carolinian officials.

Little is known about these private communications even to this day. Seward had to navigate the delicate situation of avoiding formal political recognition of the breakaway government by resorting to intrigue, and both Lamon and Hurlbut were political cronies of the president whose reliability as witnesses to their own roles remains questionable. In cumulative however, they likely confused the secessionists about Lincoln’s objectives by conveying an array of conflicting messages about whether or when he intended to resupply the fort. The Confederates responded to word of the impending arrival of a Union resupply ship on April 12, 1861 by opening fire.

Longstanding biographical conventions have credited Lincoln with deftly maneuvering the south into firing the first shot, while his Confederate detractors charged him with intentional deception. A simpler explanation may be found in the chaotic management of the administration’s early days, itself a result of Lincoln underestimating the crisis before him. Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy, hinted as much in an unpublished journal a decade later noting that “[o]ne third of the administration of Mr. Lincoln expired before he had a clear and well-defined policy as to the course” of the war.[13] What is certain however is that the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter ignited a political powder keg across the upper south.

Lincoln appears to have largely misjudged the rapidly degrading situation, expecting southern unionists would assert themselves and respond to his call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the South Carolinians’ rebellion on April 15. Instead the events galvanized the thus-far tepid secessionism of the border states, moving North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas into the Confederate column over the next month.[14] The citizens of the geographically strategic slave states of Kentucky and Missouri resisted secession, but their political climates quickly devolved into a struggle of internal provocation between secession-sympathizing militias and rash Union army officials, the latter often acting without clear direction from Washington. Although wrapped into the national conflict, both states essentially experienced their own internal civil wars within the Civil War, replete with guerilla operations and “irregular” units on both sides that flaunted the conventional rules of warfare and intentionally targeted civilians who were unfortunate enough to reside in the vicinity of their operations.

The Confederate belligerents still carry primary blame for pulling the trigger at Fort Sumter - indeed, they had hoped to instigate further secession in the upper south by sparking an armed conflict. A measured assessment of these events must also include Lincoln’s mistaken perception of border states unionism, particularly after his April 15th call for troops. The chaotic events that followed effectively transformed a regional Deep South rebellion into a national civil war that his administration was not yet prepared to fight.

Curiously, the stumbling confusion of that war’s unfolding in its early months stands in marked contrast with Lincoln’s acute awareness of its underlying causes. In between his election and inauguration Lincoln evinced as much in a secret letter to Alexander Stephens, soon to be named Vice President of the breakaway Confederacy. “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted,” he candidly explained. “That I suppose is the rub.”[15] Yet a clarity of understanding about the underlying strife did not translate into military or political preparedness, which raises a second fault of Lincoln’s presidency in its execution of the war.

By every indicator, neither Union nor Confederate officials truly grasped the prolonged struggle of the war before them or the resolve of their opposing belligerents. The rhetoric in advance of the first major conflict, fought along Bull Run creek for control of a railway junction at Manassas, Virginia, suggested that each combatant expected a quick and decisive rout of the other that would ultimately resolve the war’s political outcome. Instead, the country descended into four prolonged years of death and destruction.

The political course of the war continued to defy expectations until the fall of Richmond in April 1865. As late as February of that year, Lincoln approached the Confederate government for informal negotiations at Hampton Roads, Virginia under the assumption that the war that might continue for years to come. Jefferson Davis’s government vowed to fight until the bitter end. A staggering toll of death and destruction amassed in intervening years. At least 750,000 soldiers lost their lives during the war according to the most recent estimates, with a majority occurring on the Union side.[16]

It would be unfair to only lay these losses at Lincoln’s feet, particularly given the Confederacy’s resolve to maintain slavery at all costs.[17] Yet even after the Emancipation Proclamation secured this cause to the Union’s war effort, the war itself remained a political endeavor with clear political objectives centered upon the capture of Richmond. Lincoln was not above extracting personal political advantage from the war effort either. The Union military command strategically employed furloughs and even altered troop movements to maximize their advantage in delivering votes to Lincoln in the 1864 election. But perhaps even more telling, an empirical analysis of Union casualty rates suggests an inverse relationship between deployment of its soldiers in high-casualty situations and the electoral college clout of the unit’s state.[18] Whether a conscious strategy or an incidental effect, troop deployments ultimately entail political decisions in addition to their military objectives.

Strategically constrained by but also philosophically wedded to a core philosophy of unionism that consistently took precedence in his mind, Lincoln did not shift its course toward the more overt strategy of liberation desired by abolitionists even though many of them – as the aforementioned example of Higginson illustrates – worked from the ground to inject the Union cause with that objective. The choice may have been advantageous to the goal of capturing the Confederate government, but it often relegated the well-being slaves themselves to a secondary consideration.[19]

Instead, the Union command perceived the freed slaves already amassing in the north’s “contrabands camps” as a public burden. In the final two years of the war military recruiters also opportunistically preyed upon the able-bodied among them to replenish their ranks, with some evidence suggesting their disproportionate use in high-casualty situations. The United States Colored Troops incurred a substantially higher casualty rate (20.5%) than white Union soldiers (15.2%).[20] Other relief efforts were at best haphazardly administered, and the postwar Freedmen’s Bureau – though well-intentioned, and indeed created through one of Lincoln’s last legislative initiatives before his assassination – was hamstrung by an ineffectual top-down military organizational model, its inconsistent funding sources, political corruption, and racist political opposition.

The prioritization of the war’s political dimensions over its emancipationist aims also carried harmful implications for the freed slaves themselves. The movement of armies likely displaced hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, and with it unleashed a public health crisis through the mass-transmission of disease. An estimated 60,000 former slaves died from a smallpox epidemic that sprung from the movement of armies, and untold tens of thousands suffered from starvation, homelessness, and related effects of military destruction.[21]

While it is impossible to predict the results of a counterfactual in which a more overt emancipationist impulse guided military strategy over political unionism, the tangible hardships of the war illustrate the precarious nature of military conflict, and its propensity to inflict its greatest harms upon noncombatants. Truly just wars are a rarity – even when they count a just outcome among their consequences. More often, war enables unscrupulous and violent actors such that misconduct cannot ever be completely dissociated from a war’s causes. To the contrary, it often rises to the top, and the Civil War’s excesses were no exception.

Consider the words of William T. Sherman before his infamous burning of Atlanta in 1864: “We don’t want your negroes or your horses or your houses or your lands or anything you have, but we do want, and will have, a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involves the destruction of your improvements we cannot help it.”[22] Such sentiments simultaneously serviced the political objective of unionism and discarded any concern for the wellbeing of the slaves. Yet they also evince an authoritarianism – an unqualified demand for political obedience - that chafes with any liberal conceptualization of justice in military action.

That the Confederate command, fighting for the unjust cause of slavery, indulged in numerous and far-reaching war crimes of their own – consider the example of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s massacre of surrendering black soldiers at the battle of Fort Pillow in 1864 – does little to ethically mitigate the Union’s own failings. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts and subject of the film Glory, candidly acknowledged this moral quandary in a letter after witnessing the sacking and pillaging of Darien, Georgia by Union troops under the eye of a permissive commander:

“The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it. Then he says, “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare” but that makes it none the less revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless.”[23]

Shaw’s message pinpointed a moral consideration that he certainly recognized but that also, in the hands of other commanders, succumbed to expedience or worse. War is indeed hell, to further paraphrase Sherman, and faute de mieux tolerance of one belligerent over another does not ethically absolve the decisions and human actors who make it hellish. As with most wartime presidents, Lincoln’s reputation shares culpability with the officers under his command for injustices against noncombatants. These need not define the entirety of his intentions, or supplant the significance of its emancipatory consequences. But neither can they be politely overlooked, as they speak directly to the moral dangers of the war as it actually was waged as distinct from its military celebration and valorization in hindsight

Lincoln’s reputation is also susceptible on account of the precedence that derived from his wartime actions, which forms the basis of my third criticism. Lincoln’s administration vastly expanded the scope of wartime executive power through both his conscious legal decisions and the examples they set for his presidential successors. Subsequent presidential uses and abuses of those same powers, often explicitly cited to Lincoln’s authority and celebrated reputation, accordingly fall within the scope of his legacy.

The most salient example may be found in Lincoln’s unilateral suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, beginning shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861 while Congress was out of session. Lincoln famously defended this action before Congress that summer, asking “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the government itself go to pieces lest one be violated?”[24]

Rooted in an appeal to the necessity of the emergency, this defense provided a brilliant rhetorical justification for Lincoln’s actions. Many of his presidential successors as well as historians still defer to it as a conclusive vindication executive war power during an existential crisis for the government. Yet closer scrutiny of Lincoln’s suspension reveals both its dubious legal basis and its ineffectual deployment during the war, calling the very premise of the necessity doctrine into question.

Simply stated, the Constitution places the habeas corpus suspension clause in Article I among the enumerated restrictions upon the legislative branch. Both English common law tradition and textual evidence from the founding era strongly point to the exercise of this power being a legislative prerogative, and American jurisprudence generally affirmed as much prior to the Civil War.[25] By claiming his own emergency authority to suspend the writ in Congress’s absence, Lincoln pressed executive wartime power into uncharted constitutional territory.

The actual circumstances of the suspension’s occasion are often neglected, compared to the posited exigencies of Lincoln’s rhetorical case. While the chaotic early days of the war arguably imperiled the capital and government itself, particularly as Confederate sympathizers sought to impede railroad transports of troops into Washington through the border state of Maryland by sabotaging the tracks, there’s actually very little evidence that the suspension of habeas corpus meaningfully aided in the government’s ability to weather the emergency. The most notable arrest to take place under the suspension, that of accused saboteur John Merryman, did not occur until over a month after the threat to the capital had passed. Even the military orders to seize him evinced confusion about his exact role in the preceding events, and the nighttime arrest at Merryman’s rural farmhouse had no discernible strategic benefit for military operations.

While subsequent suspensions likely eased the process detaining suspected Confederates, they also quickly became a tool of political abuse to circumvent the civilian courts - including in circumstances far removed from the lines of battle and with little connection to a pressing “emergency” that could not have been handled in the judicial branch. Recent scholarship has uncovered the practice of using the suspension power to deny judicial relief to foreign nationals who were drafted into Union military service, and to prevent courtroom scrutiny of military recruiting practices among “soldier-minors” – a class of underage children who joined the Union army without parental consent. As federal law provided for judicial oversight of both through a writ of habeas corpus, its suspension quickly became a tool of convenience for pressing young men into the army.[26]

Politically, Lincoln’s habeas suspension planted the seeds of a constitutional crisis that continues to reverberate into the present day. The Merryman incident provoked a judicial rebuke of the administration by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing from the federal circuit bench, in which he declared the president’s actions unconstitutional.[27] Rather than appeal its course to the Supreme Court, Lincoln essentially opted to ignore the ruling.

Over the following months, the administration settled into a pattern of flaunting judicial oversight that extended well beyond an unpopular and southern-sympathizing Chief Justice. Later that fall, and with direct sanction from the president as reported in the diary of his secretary John Hay, an army Adjutant General stationed armed guards at the residence of a D.C. Circuit Court justice to either intimidate or physically prevent him from issuing a writ of habeas corpus to a soldier-minor. The stunt earned Lincoln another judicial rebuke from the court, which he promptly ignored.[28] Even if one accepts the necessity argument for effecting a suspension in emergency situations, the administration’s pattern of flaunting direct judicial oversight of its policies portended a practice that has since become a common feature of wartime jurisprudence.[29]

In total, the writ remained in suspension through unilateral executive action for almost two years until Congress rubber stamped Lincoln’s action on March 3, 1863. Its deleterious constitutional legacy extends far beyond the Civil War, as subsequent presidents have taken refuge in Lincoln’s expansion of executive authority to justify their own far-reaching indulgences in detention during times of war. Franklin Roosevelt’s internment policy against Japanese-Americans, the use of military tribunals as an alternative to civilian courts for wartime prosecutions, and even the infamous “torture memos” from George W. Bush’s global war embrace an expansive view of executive wartime power have roots that trace back to the precedent established by Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in 1861.[30]

Granting that the circumstances of Lincoln’s wartime administration were extraordinary, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he vastly expanded executive power, including in ways that he likely did not anticipate himself. Unfortunately, historical figures do not have the luxury of directing how subsequent generations will use, or abuse, their own decisions in later and unforeseen circumstances. Yet the invocation of Lincoln’s habeas argument to justify expansive war powers remains a clear and recurring theme among his presidential successors in both major parties. It has accordingly become a part of his presidential legacy, and one that has operated to detrimental effect well beyond his own exercise of these powers.

In the end, Lincoln’s presidency occurred during a period of unparalleled political upheaval and conflict that likely exceeded the capabilities of any human actor. His record through the war reflects an enigmatic mixture of principled decisions and short-sighted failings, of prescient political acumen at times and avoidable missteps at others. Lincoln was neither an angel nor a demon – indeed his complicated legacy makes him more interesting than those who portray him as either would permit.

To Lincoln’s enduring credit, his most capable energies were enlisted to a just cause of emancipation. Yet his larger victory in the Civil War also came about through a messy execution which classical liberals, like the abolitionists before them, should approach with a scrutinizing eye on account of the devastation it unleashed and the complicated record of executive precedents it bestowed upon his successors.


[1] See, e.g., the C-Span Historians’ Survey of Presidential Leadership, which consistently awards Lincoln top marks not only on categories of his acknowledged skill such as “public persuasion” and “crisis leadership” but also in areas of presidential performance where his record is comparatively undistinctive such as “economic management,” or in areas where it was plagued by several acknowledged missteps such as “international relations.” https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017/

[2] For a detailed historiographic study of the anti-Lincoln tradition see Barr, John McKee. Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present. LSU Press, 2014.

[3] To take a common example, many free market libertarians take specific issue with Lincoln’s adherence to an economic platform that included protectionist tariffs, railroad and internal improvement subsidies, and centralized banking. It is accurate to describe Lincoln as a Henry Clay tariff Whig and his presidency evinced a clear interest in each of these policies. Their elevation to the center of a critique of Lincoln nonetheless carries the risk of perpetuating a distorted assessment that neglects the primacy of slavery’s instigating role in secessionism. For a historical discussion of erroneous representations of the Civil War as a tariff war, see Palen, Marc-William. “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy.” Journal of the Civil War Era. 3.1 (2013): 35-61.

[4] Cobden to Louis Mallet, January 15, 1863, in Simon Morgan, ed. The Letters of Richard Cobden. Oxford University Press. Vol IV, p. 358

[5] John Atkinson Hobson, Richard Cobden: The International Man. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1919, p. 350

[6] Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Riverside Press, 1900 (1869).

[7] Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition: and the men who made it. Vintage, 2011.

[8] Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865. WW Norton & Company, 2012.

[9] For a synopsis of the evidence regarding Lincoln’s late-life commitment to the Whig formula, see Magness, Phillip W. “The Changing Legacy of Civil War Colonization” in Beverly Tomek and Matthew Hetrick, eds. New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization. University Press of Florida, 2017.

[10] A thorough study of this neglected measure may be found in Crofts, Daniel W. Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union. UNC Press Books, 2016.

[11] Donald & Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, (1996, Stanford University Press), 116.

[12] Evan J. Coleman, “Gwin and Seward – A Secret Chapter in Antebellum History,” Overland Monthly, November 1891; For discussions of the political intrigue surrounding the early months of Lincoln’s presidency see Crofts, Daniel W. A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man.” LSU Press, 2010; Magness, Phillip W. “Between Evidence, Rumor, and Perception: Marshal Lamon and the “Plot” to Arrest Chief Justice Taney.” Journal of Supreme Court History 42.2 (2017): 133-153.

[13] Gideon Welles, “Notes on the Treatment of Fugitive Slaves,” ca. 1875. WE 408, Huntington Library.

[14] This thesis is explored in convincing detail in Crofts, Daniel W. Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis. UNC Press Books, 1993.

[15] Lincoln to Alexander Stephens, December 22, 1860, in Roy Basler, ed. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 160

[16] Hacker, J. David. “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead.” Civil War History 57.4 (2011): 307-348.

[17] To this end, the Confederates rebuffed Lincoln’s offers of compensated emancipation at the aforementioned Hampton Roads conference.

[18] Anderson, Gary M., and Robert D. Tollison. “Political influence on civil war mortality rates: the electoral college as a battlefield.” Defence and Peace Economics 2.3 (1991): 219-233.

[19] See e.g. Spooner, Lysander. “Letter to Charles Sumner” and “Letter to Charles Francis Adams” in Public Letters and Political Essays of Lysander Spooner. American Institute for Economic Research, 2019.

[20] Aptheker, Herbert. “Negro casualties in the Civil War.” The Journal of Negro History 32.1 (1947): 10-80.

[21] Downs, Jim. Sick From Freedom: African-American illness and suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[22] Sherman to James M. Calhoun, September 12, 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Government Printing Office, 1892. Volume XXXIX, Part II, p. 419

[23] Russell Duncan, ed. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. University of Georgia Press, 1992. p. 343

[24] Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, July 4, 1861, in Basler, ed. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 4, p. 430.

[25] Ex Parte Bollman and Ex Parte Swartwout, 8 U.S. 4 Cranch 75 75 (1807)

[26] Faith, Robert O. “Public Necessity or Military Convenience?: Reevaluating Lincoln’s Suspensions of the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.” Civil War History 62.3 (2016): 284-320.

[27] Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861)

[28] United States ex re John Murphy v. Andrew Porter, Provost Marshal District of Columbia, 2 Hay. & Haz. 395 (1861); White, Jonathan W. “Sweltering with treason -The Civil War trials of William Matthew Merrick.” Prologue: The Quarterly Journal of the National Archives and Records Administration. 39.2 (2007): 26-36.

[29] For an insightful history of the evolution of extra-judicial proceedings in times of war, see Louis Fisher. Military Tribunals and Presidential Power. University of Kansas Press, 2005

[30] As one of the Bush administration memoranda declared, “President Lincoln’s actions at the start of the Civil War more fully bear out the executive branch’s plenary authority to respond swiftly with military force” to an attack. John C. Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty, “Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales Re. Authority for the Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States,” October 23, 2001, p. 10.